October 2006

Itís the End of the World As We Know It on Network Television.

Media Commentary By John Kenneth Muir

John K. Muir's Encyclopedia of Superheroes was picked by NY Public Libraries as a Top Ten Reference Work for 2004/5Last season (2005-2006), network television acknowledged the startling success of ABCís Lost with a slew of imitators: serialized science fiction TV series that combined mystery and soap opera elements. All of them—NBCís Surface, CBSís Threshold, ABCís double-hitter: Invasion and Night Stalker—bit the dust. None survived to see a second season (and in the case of Surface and Invasion, thatís a shame, as they both had a lot of promise.)

This season, the networks are at it again, attempting to blend science fiction 'high concepts' with soap opera character melodrama. The aliens and sea monsters of last year are absent, replaced by an entirely more fascinating breed of 'what if' set-ups. The trend has skewed from the fantastic and the extra-terrestrial this year to the dark. Real dark.

In particular, CBSís Jericho is televisionís first post-apocalyptic series since Planet of the Apes and Loganís Run came along in the Cold War 1970s, and NBCís Heroes gazes lugubriously at the next evolution of humanity. Yes, itís a superhero show…but also something darker and more mysterious; something with a portentous sense of gravitas. In particular, both series appear obsessed with a change in the nature of humanity and our world; the end of manís 21st century civilization as we know it. I can only account for this new mini-trend by noting that itís surely a sign of the times. With Christian fundamentalists populating the White House and Islamic fundamentalists leading Iran, how long is it before this so-called global 'clash of civilizations' ends badly for all of us? Which breed of religious zealot will push the button first? Both sides want to initiate the ďEnd of Days,Ē so itís a toss-up, especially given our reckless new policy of pre-emptive war.

So—as always—television capitalizes on the cultural Zeitgeist, and in this case, predicts a 'shift' in our world that could be catastrophic.

Jericho is the more overtly-styled 'end of the world' series. It begins with enigmatic young Jake (Skeet Ulrich) —a self-confessed 'screw up'—driving home to Jericho, Kansas for the first time in five years. There, he fights old battles with his self-righteous, politician Dad (Gerald McRaney), Jerichoís mayor, over the inheritance left by his dead grandfather. Jake also meets up with an old girlfriend, Emily Sullivan (Ashley Scott), and learns that she's now engaged to a banker.

Jake leaves Jericho soon after his arrival, but while he's driving away, Denver gets nuked by an unnamed enemy! There's a beautiful shot of this frightening incident occurring. The camera swoops up over a house's roof while a little boy is playing hide-and-seek there. The camera looms over the structure and in the distance, a mushroom cloud burns and expands...a deadly flower blooming on the horizon. The rest of the episode involves the town's response to the nuclear attack, and the audience learns from a kid named Dale Turner that Atlanta has also been hit. He knows because his answering machine recorded a message from his Mom at the moment of impact; while she's talking, the bomb strikes. Why the attack? Jericho reveals precious little; leaving the politics vague. Early on, there's a radio news report about the rise of 'global violence' and the President's controversial response to it. Later, the attack seems timed to occur right as the President (off-screen) is about to deliver an address to both houses of Congress. After the bombs hit, of course, it's unlikely anyone will ever know the exact reasons for the deadly war. Telephones, radios and television are all scrambled…useless.

In depicting a small, Red State town surviving the apocalypse, Jericho taps into a weird brand of dystopian wish-fulfillment. All TV is wish-fulfillment to some degree, but Jericho plays subtly on the prevailing Zeitgeist; the desire of many Americans to opt-out of the contemporary life-style; of complex global politics; of a modern life of isolation and alienation rather than community; of the 60-hour-a-week rat-race; of a technology-driven culture where you can be contacted at any time by work via cell phones, e-mails etc. The allure of Jericho is to start again, back to the basics, with a society shorn of all the Information Age clutter and bureaucracy that snarls America.

For there to be a renewal in America, Jericho suggests, much of the country's got to go up in smoke. To renew an America that 'can do,' the America that can't save its own cities (like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina) has to burn. That concept underlies this series, and as Jericho continues, I expect the town will serve as a microcosm both for what's right and what's wrong in our culture today. If the series goes whole hog into this line of thinking—dwelling on availability of resources; security, and so on—it could prove one of the most powerful science fiction dramas to come down the pike in a long time.

The second Jericho episode is even more grim than the first. In "Fallout" a storm cloud of radioactive rain bears down on the town and the citizenry is forced to evacuate to two bomb shelters that were long ago forgotten. Some of the population doesn't want to leave the local saloon, run by the sexy bartender Mary. Therefore, the deputy mayor, Eric (Kenneth Mitchell) paints the recalcitrant patrons a not-so-pretty picture of what they face if they don't evacuate: "You're going to get radiation poisoning. Your hair is going to fall out in chunksyour skin will blisteryour organs will start to fail" After this description, the denizens reconsider their position and decide to take shelter.

One of the best and most chilling aspects of Fallout involves the coda. A man with a secret (who claims to be an ex-cop) named Robert Hawkins (Lennie James)—my favorite character on the series so far—has de-coded a Morse Code message from a ham radio transmission. Anyway, he's penned a list of targets from his translation, and while sitting in front of a map of the United States, Hawkins begins marking (with stick pins), the location of nuclear strikes. Bombs have struck Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego, and on and on. After a few seconds, the camera stops highlighting the names of the cities destroyed and instead focuses on Robert's hand returning again and again—over and over—to the bin of stick pins. The message is plain: this has been a devastating and huge attack. At this point, however, we still don't know who the attackers are…

While Jericho ponders the aftermath of a nuclear attack, the central threat on NBCís Heroes is also, not surprisingly, the specter of a nuclear mushroom destroying one of our cities. In this case, New York. The disaster is predicted and visualized by a painter with precognitive abilities during the first hour of this new program. So even though the series is a new spin on the superhero genre that has populated TV since The Adventures of Superman in the mid-1950s, Heroes taps into a dark, 'War of Terror' age atmosphere, the suggestion that things are going badly for America, and indeed, the West.

A little bit like last year's Surface, Heroes casts a wide geographic net, and—at least initially—keeps it dramatis personae carefully separated. In other words, central characters are experiencing strange things across the globe, and are not yet aware that they are part of a larger trend, the crossing of the 'threshold of true human potential.' Hence there's a work-a-day character in Japan named Hiro who learns he can bend time and space, and he doesn't arrive in New York till the first episode's end.

Another interesting character is the Texas cheerleader, Claire Bennett, from Odessa, Texas. She's from a white-trash family, but boasts the unusual ability to heal at an inhumanly accelerated rate. I particularly enjoyed the moment in the first show when she pulled up her cheerleader uniform to reveal bloody, cracked ribs protruding from her side. As if it was nothing, she just stuffed the shattered bones back in, under the skin, by hand! Later in the premiere, her fingers got chopped off in a sink disposal, and then re-formed before our amazed eyes while she tried to hide it from Mom.

The feeling that Heroes successfully evokes is one of individual importance. Each of the characters in Heroes seems like an average joe in some basic senses. Thereís not a rich man, powerful man, nor blue blood among them. Yet, each one has a special power that will no doubt prove necessary in averting the nuclear disaster in New York.

In our 'real world' society, American citizens canít heal at miraculous speeds, teleport across the world, or fly through the sky like Superman, but we do have one super power we can exercise: we can vote. Our vote can change things. One decision in the polling booth can alter an entire future. In its own mass-entertainment fashion, Heroes is really about how one individual can summon the power to make the world a better place. Better choices in leaders and policies can help America avert the global showdown coming with (pick your poison): Iran, North Korea or Syria.

Jericho warns us nuclear Armageddon is coming and America will have to be renewed by the people who survive it. Heroes informs is that nuclear war is coming too, but that courageous individuals who donít realize their own personal power can avert it. Both new series reflect our national unease in this sixth year of the reckless Bush Presidency. And both make for damn compelling television. Letís hope that in twenty-years time, we can all look back these ďWar of TerrorĒ age programs and laugh about how their predictions of doom and gloom never came true…

Copyright © 2006 by John Kenneth Muir. All Rights Reserved.
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